Survivors reflect on plane crash miracle
Kurt Bohlsen has been flying planes since he was 16, but has never faced anything more challenging than a flat tire.
That all changed Dec. 20, when his `69 Piper lost power and crashed into a wooded area about 1,500 feet off Church Road in Florida.
"It was like utter chaos and destruction," Bohlsen, 47, said Wednesday. "It was freezing cold out. There was snow. It was an epic adventure of madness and destruction."
Despite the plane and several trees being ripped into pieces, Bohlsen, his 15-year-old daughter, Hannah, their au pair, Nici Krainer, and their 14 pound dog, Baci, had escaped the crash with relatively minor injuries. Firefighters who descended on the forest that night, initially expecting it to be a tragic recovery mission, called it a miracle that they survived.
In an interview with The Eagle from his home in Islip, N.Y., Bohlson said he believes it was a mix of luck, his experience as a pilot, and the efforts of the emergency responders that saved their lives only five days before Christmas.
"If we should have died, we would have died," he said. "I think the tree we hit was all luck. If we hit another tree, we would have been dead."
The evening of the crash, Bohlsen and his passengers were making a weekend trip from New York's Long Island to Rutland, Vt. The family owns a ski house on Stratton Mountain, where Hannah had recently joined an alpine ski team. That weekend would have been the third meeting of the season.
At first, their routine 90 minute flight from Long Island was just that.
"The skies were clear. The weather report was good," Bohlsen recalled. "It was an uneventful flight for the first 45 minutes."
It was when the plane reached Northern Massachusetts when Bohlsen noticed there was an issue with the engine and the plane began to lose power. Bohlsen got on the radio with air traffic controllers, who gave him directions to Harriman-and-West Airport in North Adams.
About 60 seconds after trying to adjust course to the airport, he realized there was a mountain between his current location and the runway.
"I realized at that point, we were just not going to make it," Bohlsen said. "There were no options below. There was just state forest."
Bohlsen then started scouring the mountain, which was dark, for somewhere "in a very unforgiving place that was going to be the most forgiving," he said.
That's when he spotted a ridge in the Florida forest.
"I really couldn't see much. There was a moon up but it wasn't a full moon," he said. "Fortunately, my daughter was asleep in the back of the plane."
Bohlsen alerted Krainer that they were going to make a crash landing and aimed for the ridge.
"The last thing I saw was a big tree. I think it was spruce tree," he said. "We hit that thing very hard. We tumbled and twisted."
After landing, and struggling to get his seat belt off, Bohlsen turned around and realized that the back of the plane was gone and he couldn't find his daughter.
Hannah then started calling his name and he and Krainer made their way over to her.
Bohlsen led his passengers to a safe space away from the remains of the plane, in fear that the remaining 60 gallons of fuel would ignite and tried to call 911, but none of their cellphones had service.
Air traffic control had a 3 mile radius where the plane went down, but Bohlsen knew that at night, in a forest, it would be a large area for first responders to search.
While awaiting rescue, and hearing sirens that indicated the search had started, Hannah's Apple Watch began to ring.
"My grandma called me on my Apple Watch and it came through," Hannah said Thursday, in a phone interview. "I realized I could call 911 on my Apple watch and that's how we got in touch with them."
Hannah answered and told her grandmother they were in a plane crash and couldn't talk. They then used the watch to dial 911 and dispatch told them to hang up and try to call back with a cellphone. Even without service, emergency responders were able to detect their location.
From that call, it took about an hour to find the group, Florida Fire Capt. Michael Worth said a day after the crash, when the remains of the small plane and the group's belongings were still scattered among the forest.
When rescuers arrived, Hannah didn't have any shoes on and was experiencing back pain. She was the only one who could not walk out of the woods unassisted.
Hannah said she remembers being able to walk after her dad helped her out of the seat of the plane, which had been severed from the cockpit.
"I was sitting behind my dad and [he] and Nici were sitting in front. After the crash, they were both behind me," Hannah said. "The plane broke in half I guess."
It wasn't until she rested on a part of the plane, while waiting for rescuers, that she realized the extent of her back injury.
"I was able to walk out of the plane, but after I laid down on a piece of the plane I wasn't able to stand," Hannah said. "They had to carry me out on this tarp thing.
Worth, who ran operations at the scene, said that rescuers first dragged Hannah along the snowy terrain, in the dark, on the tarp. When possible, they moved the girl to a rescue sled and sang Christmas carols as they pulled her the rest of the way.
"I was never so happy to see someone my whole life," Bohlsen recalled the moment the first rescuer arrived. "They saved our lives. We'd still be there trying to rub sticks together."
Hannah suffered a vertebrae injury in the crash that required spinal fusion surgery that left her hospitalized for over a week, first in Albany and then on Long Island. Bohlsen and Krainer were treated for several days at Berkshire Medical Center for less serious injuries, Bohlsen said. Last week, Bohlsen had plastic surgery to repair a hole in his forehead, he said.
After being released from the hospital, Krainer got on a flight to San Francisco to celebrate Christmas with friends. Hannah and her dad were planning to celebrate Christmas together on Saturday.
"All the presents are still under the tree," he said Wednesday.
As of Jan. 9, the National Transportation Safety Board was still investigating the crash. A preliminary report was not yet available.
Hannah, who will likely be recovering throughout this ski season, said that she was grateful to everyone who cared for her on scene and at the hospitals.
"Everyone was so nice to me. They worked really well," she said. "I'm really glad that were all that nice."
Haven Orecchio-Egresitz can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, @HavenEagle on Twitter and 413-770-6977.
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